Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running Shirts

runDisney, Disney running, Tinker Bell Half Marathon, running shirt

Smiles for women’s cut race shirts at the 2012 Tinker Bell Half Marathon. (Photo: runDisney)

An Open Letter To Race Directors Everywhere

Dear Race Directors,

Earlier this year, runDisney announced they are offering women’s cut running shirts at the 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon in addition to the “unisex” race shirts they’ve handed out for the last 20 years.

Women all across the U.S. shouted a collective “Amen!” to Disney’s news. Why? We’ve been grumbling about this for years: under our breath, to other runners, and, on occasion, to you.

Disney recognized what you should too: women now account for the majority of runners. The tide has turned and women are the main driver in the current running boom.

So here are all of the reasons why you should have women’s cut running shirts at your next major race as part of your registration kit.

The Women’s Running Boom

In 2012, a record 56 percent of all running race finishers were women. There were over 8.6 million of us out there, versus 6.8 million men. When you look at the half marathon, America’s most popular race distance by any measure according to RunningUSA, women account for 60 percent of the field. RunningUSA, which tracks and publishes all these stats, called this “astounding.”

running shirt, women's running

Women now account for 56 percent of all running race finishers. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

In fact, it’s the increased year-over-year participation of women that has largely fueled the current running boom. Since 1990, the number of female running event finishers has climbed from just under 1.2 million to nearly 8.7 million. At the same time, the number of male finishers has grown from almost 3.6 million to just over 6.8 million. Namely, while male participation hasn’t quite doubled, female participation has jumped more than 700 percent.

While women are just 42 percent of marathon finishers overall, some races are starting to see the changing of the guard. More women than men ran the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2013, the first time in the race’s 20 years. It was one of the first major marathons where that happened.

In fact, so many women are running these days that they’ve inspired a whole new genre of race: the women’s focused race. We flock to them by the thousands. I’ll tell you a secret: one of the reasons is the women’s cut running shirts. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Sure, we love the camaraderie, we love being first off the line, but we also love getting a race shirt that actually fits, instead of a men’s shirt that someone labeled “unisex.”

Women Hate Unisex Shirts

Guess what? You’re not fooling anyone by calling race shirts unisex. Unisex is code for men’s. They don’t fit most women and they look terrible on most women. If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck… you get the idea.

Do you know what we do with them? We give them away. We cut them up and use them as rags. We wear them as “toss away” shirts at our cold weather races.

I give many of mine to my husband, especially when I get to the expo to discover that all the extra-smalls, smalls, and mediums are already gone and I’m left with a men’s large that is far too big on me, despite the fact that I checked the “XS” shirt box when I registered.

My husband has not once heard, “Sorry, we’re all out of large!” But without fail, at race after race, all the small sizes disappear while the larger sizes are left behind. When are race directors going to learn to order fewer large and extra-large and more small and extra-small? Better yet, when are they all going to start offering women’s cut running shirts and solve that problem for once and for all?

Sure, there are a very few unisex race shirts that I keep simply because I love the race. But I almost never wear them anymore. I reach for all of my women’s cut shirts time and time again.

Why Race Directors Should Care

So what, you say? Why should I care if you give your race shirt away or turn it into a rag, you ask? When runners wear your race shirt, you get free advertising. If half of your runners aren’t wearing the race shirt, you’re selling yourself short. I often get asked about a running shirt I’m wearing by other runners, even strangers on the street—if I liked it, when the race is, things like that. I do the same. If I see someone wearing a shirt from a race I’m curious about, I’ll ask them about it. It happens all the time. Actually, it just happened to me the other day. Someone on the subway in New York City asked me about a race after reading my shirt. She wanted to know when the race was and if it was worth traveling for.

running shirt, women's running

Women buy 60 percent of athletic shoes. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

But losing half of your customer base as walking advertisements is not just bad for you, it’s also bad business for your sponsors. Women “control” 70 percent of all household purchases and 64 percent of total consumer spending worldwide, according to a 2008 Boston Consulting Group survey. It holds true in the running world too. Women buy 60 percent of all athletic shoes, which includes running shoes, according to a 2012 U.S. Census report citing a 2010 National Sporting Goods Association survey.

Sure, some people dispute those statistics, like a 2011 Wall Street Journal article that said while women on average say they control 73 percent of household spending, men say they control 61 percent of it. Thus, both groups claim to influence the majority of spending. “But it also shows that two or more people can influence a purchasing decision, or think that they can,” the article states. Exactly. Even if women merely think they control 73 percent of purchasing decisions, you want them thinking well of you.

My own household fits that 73 percent mold. I do the vast majority of the buying for my husband and me, though we discuss all our major purchases. And I’m more likely to buy something from a company if I just love the shirt I got at one of my races. It exposes me to brands I might not otherwise think of.

Here’s a case in point. At the 2012 Tinker Bell Half Marathon, I got a women’s cut shirt made by Champion (pictured above), a brand I’ve never worn as a runner. I loved the fit and how well it washed. A month later, I was shopping for a solid white running shirt for my husband. When I found three shirts for the same price at my local sports store, guess which one I bought? The one by Champion.

Mind you, I’d also received a men’s cut shirt by Champion at the 2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon. I’ve worn it exactly zero times. If my only experience of the brand had been that men’s cut shirt, I probably wouldn’t have bought the Champion shirt for my husband. I would have bought one from one of the other two brands that I would have been more familiar with. But because I got a women’s cut shirt that I actually wore, it allowed me to get to know the brand better.

One Race Director’s Take

Just to make sure I’m not asking a Sisyphean task of race directors, I decided to check with one: NYCRUNS founder Steve Lastoe, who I’ve worked with on many occasions and is a personal friend. I asked Lastoe, who organizes races like the Brooklyn Marathon and Yonkers Marathon and Half Marathon (where I got a women’s cut shirt in 2012), to tell me candidly just how hard it is to give gender specific running shirts.

“There is no way to order and get it 100 percent right, but gender specificity shouldn’t throw it off that much more,” Lastoe said. “The bigger the race, the more likely you are to be further off. It’s a balancing act.”

But many major races, like the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Oasis Montreal Marathon and Half Marathon, and Philadelphia Marathon, manage to pull it off. I got women’s cut shirts from those events in 2009, 2010, and 2012 respectively.

“I really believe that runners deserve a shirt in their size,” Lastoe said. “The more important the race, the truer that is and that goes for gender specificity too.”

How To Decide If Your Race Needs Women’s Cut Running Shirts

Now, I’m not talking about community runs or small charity events that barely make ends meet. I know you’re fighting just to stay alive and do some good in your community. The measure? If your race hands out cotton tees, you probably get a pass.

running shirt, women's running

Women don’t run in baggy T-shirts. They run in women’s cut tops. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

What if your race hands out technical shirts? Here’s a handy 10-point checklist to help you decide if your event should offer women’s cut running shirts. If you can answer “Yes” to at least two of these questions, you should probably think about it, even if you are a not-for-profit event, as many races still are. If you can answer “Yes” to three or more, then you definitely should offer women’s cut shirts. I realize that these are arbitrary measures, but they’re a good place to start a conversation:

  • Are more than 50 percent of your participants women?
  • Is your event a for-profit endeavor?
  • Is your event a marquee race for your city, town or local area?
  • Does your event have 1,000 or more participants?
  • Does your event give out technical running shirts?
  • Does your event have an expo?
  • Does your event give finisher medals?
  • Does your event have a major sponsor?
  • Does your event have prize money and/or appearance fees for professional runners?
  • Does your event cost $50 or more for a half marathon or shorter distance and $75 or more for a marathon or triathlon?

If you’re organizing a race where more than 50 percent of your participants are women and you really only want to offer one shirt, why not make it a women’s cut and pass that off as “unisex”? I’d love to see how that goes.

And what about women who prefer men’s cut shirts? There’s a simple solution. Next to the size selection box on the registration form, have a gendered shirt selection box. It’s what many races that offer gender specific shirts already do. That way men and the women who prefer men’s shirts can have them and the rest of us can also get shirts that fit.

A Final Plea

I don’t usually write diatribes. But as I looked back at the seven races I’ve done this year, I realized that not a single one gave me a women’s cut running shirt. Of those seven races, three definitely should have. I’m not going to single out any race in particular because this is an industry-wide problem, and one that people are starting to address. One of those three races has already announced they will have women’s cut running shirts next year. I chatted with the founder of another, who told me it’s something he is considering.

I sincerely hope so. I hope runDisney moves to gender specific running shirts for all of their events in 2014, and that other companies follow suit. I’m tired of shaking my fist at the sky as I slide on another race shirt that fits me like an oversized rain poncho before tossing it at my husband with a terse, “Here.” Or give me a visor for warm-weather races, a tuque for cold-weather ones, something, anything other than another men’s cut shirt. Please.

Look, we’re not asking you to rehang the moon. We simply want the running shirt that we get as part of our race registration to reflect who we are: women.

With all sincerity,

Karla Bruning

p.s. Ladies, can I get an amen?

Does your favorite race have women’s cut running shirts? If so, let them know you appreciate it. If not, send them this post. Please tweet, post, pin, like, link, e-mail, yodel or whatever else it is you do to communicate these days. Let race directors know that running isn’t simply a man’s world anymore and race shirts should reflect that.

Disclosure: Disney sometimes provides me with complimentary race entry, hotel, park tickets, and some meals for runDisney events. NYCRUNS has given me race entries and hired me for events. But as always, all opinions are purely my own. I really do believe in being honest about my experiences and neither of these companies are an exception. For more information read my Disclosure Policy.

Karla Bruning

About 

Karla Bruning hosts On The Run for New York Road Runners. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now she freelances as a running reporter. She's run 7 marathons, 15 halves, 6 triathlons, sings in an '80s cover band, spoils her dog and travels compulsively.

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31 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    AMEN! Great points! I didn’t pay nearly $300 in race registration fees to wind up with three shirts that don’t fit me. Oh wait. Yes, I did. Because that is exactly what happened to me during Dumbo! Grrr….And that wasn’t the first time, just the first time with three shirts involved. But seriously, race directors need to wake up and smell the estrogen!
    Irene @ Will Write 4 Travel recently posted..Disneyland Half Marathon Trip Report: Health and Fitness Expo, Goofy’s Kitchen, Storytellers Cafe and the RestMy Profile

  2. 3

    Oh my gosh, that paragraph right under “why should you care” is SPOT. ON. Some races won’t even offer an XS, and a unisex small just hangs on me. I’ve never gotten a women’s cut shirt, but I consider simply having the XS actually be delivered (or, once, a youth XL haha) to be a win. And like you said — I wear those shirts in public. People ask about them.
    Sadye recently posted..One month until taper timeMy Profile

  3. 5

    Haha, love this and very true! All my race shirts are being saved to make a quilt out of eventually (not that I’m PERSONALLY going to be making said quilt…)

    Now if only runDisney would start selling tank tops at the merchandise booth – I only run in tank tops (or long sleeves in the winter) so I never end up buying anything!
    Danielle recently posted..Dumbo Double Dare: The Costume StoryMy Profile

  4. 8

    You nailed it! I have been lucky and have done several races up here that do provide women’s shirts. And not all of these races were big international type events. They were just run by people who recognize the days of male dominated races are over. Personally, I love when you fill out gender and shirt size right in the online registration. With that method I have never had to make do with a wrong size.

    My main cranky shirt complaint this year (and not nearly as important) was when my first three races of the season all provided very blah grey shirts. At one point I was going to take a picture of them, post them on my blog and title it “Only 47 Shades To Go…”
    Kristi Raz recently posted..Editing RemedialMy Profile

    • Karla Bruning
      9

      That’s hilarious! I’ve only gotten one grey shirt in the last year, LOTS of blue or white. Totally agree on the online registration. I love choosing my shirt gender and size with registration, and then when I get to the race, actually getting the right shirt! Simple pleasures.
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running ShirtsMy Profile

  5. 10

    Interesting post. And I am one of those women who most of the time prefer the men’s shirt (at least in the cotton). The tech shirts fit me weird. One I did last thanksgiving is too short and so it still hangs weird and then the half marathon in Knoxville I got a women’s large. It was way too small so I upgraded to an extra large and it was still too small. They let me switchit to a ens large and it fits perfectly. But I am also not a “small” runner so maybe that plays into it also (for me)

    • Karla Bruning
      11

      Tami, I’d love if every race gave runners the option to choose the size AND gender of their shirt. That way women, like you, who prefer the men’s shirts get a shirt that fits and women, like me, who prefer the women’s shirts get a shirt that fits. I think what this shows is that some running apparel manufacturers have yet to get the fit right. I’m 5’8 and have definitely gotten shirts that are way too short. But those are usually the exception for me.
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running ShirtsMy Profile

  6. 12

    I’ve been lucky in the fact that all three of the halfs I’ve done have offered women’s sizing. I did a small 5k last year near Halloween, and the running store that put it on offered both men’s and women’s sizes for the tech shirts, so I don’t think big races have excuses. The store gave us the shirt size we indicated on our registration, and exchanges did not happen until everyone picked up their shirts.
    Lesley recently posted..Dos a Cero!My Profile

    • Karla Bruning
      13

      Yep, that’s exactly how it should be done! Another nice touch would be a link on the race’s website to the shirt manufacturer’s sizing chart to help people choose what size will be best for them. Could save RD’s a lot of that size switching headache.
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running ShirtsMy Profile

  7. 14

    This is my 1st 6 months of running and I have completed 3 5Ks. I received 2 cotton shirts, and the other was a predominantly women’s race (3000:10) with big sponsors and they gave crew-neck tech shirts. They were better than cotton, but I’d prefer a v-neck option so there’s a little bit of room between the sweat from my neck and the fabric. I too will probably have a quilt made when I accumulate more of the cotton shirts.
    Daree Allen recently posted..Sweat with Your Sole: Charlotte (Recap Pt. 2)My Profile

  8. 16

    I couldn’t care less what kind of shirt they gave me. I love the long sleeve unisex shirts, but the women’s shirts are too short. They don’t fit women with a longer torso. All of my race shirts are piling up in my closet waiting for an old lady with some spare time to make a quilt out of them.
    Andrea @ Run, Eat, Date, Sleep recently posted..My First Day in DisneylandMy Profile

    • Karla Bruning
      17

      I’ve heard from so many people that they’re planning to make a blanket with their shirts! At 5’8, I’ve gotten a few shirts that are too short as well. But I’ve found it really depends on the brand. Most of them fit me well, whereas none of the men’s shirts do. That’s why I’d love races to let us all choose our size AND gender shirt. So we can all get the shirt that fits us best.
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running ShirtsMy Profile

  9. 18

    I wrote up a post about this very subject last year and then had a follow up one with pictures from many of my readers showing just how crappy those “unisex” shirts are. THANK YOU for bringing even more attention to this situation, maybe we’ll finally get some shirts that fit!!!! (And in case you want to read the posts I wrote on the matter here they are: http://cautionredheadrunning.blogspot.com/2012/03/can-i-please-get-shirt-that-fits.html & http://cautionredheadrunning.blogspot.com/2012/03/foto-friday-unisex-race-shirts-suck.html)
    Morgan recently posted..August Recap/StatsMy Profile

  10. 22

    As a “larger” woman, I’ve never minded the unisex shirts because they hid my bulge and I loved selecting small instead of large…that was before I got my shirt at the Women’s Fitness Half Marathon! OMG I love that shirt! It is soooooo comfortable and actually flattering, its awesome! Plus, you are absolutely right, it is completely unfair that in a race, let a lone a sport, which women are the majority that the shirts accommodate men instead. Maybe the directors have been watching too much Mad Men and have forgotten what decade this is.
    Kellie recently posted..Week in Training (and I actually Cooked Multiple Times!) 9/9 – 9/15My Profile

  11. Kimberley #
    24

    Holy girlshirt Batman! I’ve always wondered why race directors even bother giving you a shirt choice on the registration form if they’re just going to disregard it anyway. How many times have I chosen a small shirt size, just to arrive and be told sorry, all we have left is XXL. Then why did you bother asking me in the first place???

    • Karla Bruning
      25

      I’ve thought this SO many times myself and had this conversation with SO many runners! Even my husband, who wears a men’s M, gets annoyed when he’s handed a men’s XL. I just don’t understand how it happens at race after race all across the US and no one ever seems to learn. In the 60 races I’ve done, I’ve not once had a situation where only smaller sizes were available. Not once. If my size is gone, I’m usually looking at a men’s L, XL or XXL, none of which I can reasonably wear. On another interesting note, I’ve ALWAYS gotten the right size at races that offer women’s cut shirts. I LOVE when I get to an expo and my shirt size is marked on my bib and that’s the only size I’m allowed to take or better yet, my correct shirt size is already in the race bag with my bib. It makes me happier than it probably should. And I almost always turn to my husband and say, “See? That’s how it should be done!”
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running ShirtsMy Profile

  12. 26

    Well, there’s the other side of the coin, too: those of us who cannot fit the standard “women’s cut” shirts because they are too small in the chest area. I’ve been embarrassed at races and ended up with useless XL “women’s cut” shirts that look horrible because they are too tight and aren’t made for busts or hips – or had to go back and exchange my shirt for a smaller men’s one because it simply doesn’t fit.

    And that’s not necessarily a weight thing, either – Geek Feminism did a great article where they pointed out the following:

    ___
    A word on sizing. Women’s/fitted tshirts provided at events or for sale online usually max out somewhere around 40″ bust measurement, plus or minus a few inches. For instance, Thinkgeek’s largest women’s size, XXL, is 36″ in circumference, equivalent to a men’s S. American Apparel’s women’s 2XL tshirt supposedly fits around a 44″-46″ bust though AA run small. The actual size of their largest women’s tshirt, measured with a tape measure, is 42″, and falls between a men’s M and L.
    ____

    So what I’d add to your blog is “every race needs women’s cut shirts that can actually fit larger (weight or chest) women, too.”

    • Karla Bruning
      27

      Dina, this is something a few women have mentioned in comments here and on Facebook. I think it goes to show that manufacturers aren’t exactly making clothing that fits the full range of womanhood. As a woman who is 5’8 and not exactly flat chested, I often find myself thinking about shorter and smaller women too when I find that an XS or S fits me best. If I’m wearing an XS, what the heck is a petite 5’0 tall woman wearing? Because in reality, I am not an extra small person, but a taller than average one. I can only imagine what busty women go through.
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Review: Hickies Elastic Lacing System For ShoesMy Profile

  13. 28

    I doubt I will ever wear my Oklahoma City Marathon finishers shirt because it is a mens size medium. Going to try and alter it as I am proud to have earned that shirt.

  14. Katie #
    30

    I totally understand your rant, even though my sizing woes are quite different from yours!

    This spring, I ran two half marathons and my first ever full marathon. Registration for the first half marathon didn’t specify anything for gender of the shirt, so I assumed it was unisex, and requested small. When I showed up, I was handed something tiny and pink that I couldn’t dream of wearing (I’m 5’10″). There were a few leftover shirts that hadn’t been stuffed into the packets, and I was able to swap for something that I can put on, but it’s too tight to run in. The other two races let me specify men’s small. I’ve seen a few women’s cut shirts that fit ok, but it’s definitely not the norm, and men’s small usually fits me really well. But the marathon had *somehow* run out of men’s small by the time I picked up my packet, and I got stuck with a women’s large, which basically fits like a tent, which is pretty unusual. I would guess just about every woman probably ended up guessing her size incorrectly for this race, since they were so much larger than most women’s cut shirts. The men’s cut shirts vary so much less in size.

    The one race that gave me the size shirt I actually wanted had shirts with weird uncomfortable seams, so I got 3 shirts that I don’t wear.

    • Karla Bruning
      31

      Isn’t it so frustrating? I had that happen to me at a race this year. All that was left was a women’s XS which was too small or a men’s XL, which was way too large. You know what would solve so much of this? On the race website: 1) Clearly state whether shirts are gendered or unisex 2) Let runners choose if they want men’s or women’s cut 3) Link to the manufacturer’s size chart! Some races do this and it’s awesome. The Toronto Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon and Baltimore Running Festival are two examples: http://www.torontowaterfrontmarathon.com/en/souvenirs.htm and http://www.thebaltimoremarathon.com/Race_Info/Marathon.htm Both races clearly say that men’s and women’s shirts are available, show pictures of the shirt, and link to the size chart. Easy peasy!
      Karla Bruning recently posted..Race Report: William J. McCarthy Memorial SwimMy Profile


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